David L. Robbins
Novelist, Educator, Playwright, Essayist
Chapter 11 Books Interview (2006)
by David L. Robbins on May 19th, 2014

This interview originally appears on the Chapter 11 Books Blog.

Bestselling Historical Fiction author David L. Robbins, whose recent book,The Assassins Gallery, about a fictional plot to assassinate FDR, has been called “heart-stopping” by Publisher’s Weekly and is a favorite here at Chapter 11* Books, recently spoke at an event hosted by the Georgia Center For The Book. David took time out before speaking to an adoring crowd to lounge around the Decatur Square Starbucks and answer some questions for the Chapter 11* Books Blog.

(David asks for, and receives, something that “tastes as much like coffee ice cream as possible”: a coffee Frappuccino)

Chapter 11 Books Blog: Did you go to school to be a writer? What made you decide that you wanted to write?

David L. Robbins: I have a degree in Theater and Speech, with a minor in Psychology, and then I took one year out and went to Law School for three years, and practiced law for a year—none of which I use today. Nothing made me decide that I wanted to write—everything I’ve ever done, everything I’ve ever aspired to do that wasn’t writing was instead of it. Where I come from, you didn’t grow up thinking you could pull it off—and, let’s face it, for a lot of people it’s a dream that never becomes a reality. But I’ve always loved stories, I love jokes, I love comic books, and I could talk to people all day and just ask them “what did you do?” It doesn’t even really have to be exciting, I just like stories. “Once upon a time” makes me sit up on the edge of my seat. I never really decided I wanted to be a writer, writing is something I’ve always wanted to do, and I’m really, really, really lucky and blessed to be able to do it.

C11BB: You practiced Law? That seems like a good career move, why leave it?

DR: My heart wasn’t in it. I, like everyone else who grew up in the late 60’s and early 70’s, had that “save the world” messianic attitude, and, if you’re a bright kid, which I was, and hope I still am, law’s a great avenue to do that. [You think] “Oh, I can right wrongs and I can represent people, the under-represented and the downtrodden”, and then you find out law isn’t a calling, it’s a job, and I thought “hell, this isn’t going to replace my dream of wanting to write”. 50 weeks into my first and only job as a lawyer, I called my dad and said “Dad, I want to quit”. He said I had to finish out the year, so I went to my secretary and asked how much leave time I’d accumulated. When she told me two weeks, I said “great, I’m on leave, and when I’m off I quit”. I packed a cardboard box and I was gone.

C11BB: What’s the first thing you recall being paid to write?

DR: When I was 19, between my Freshman and Sophomore years in college, I worked at an ad agency. See, early on, I knew that I wanted to write but I didn’t think I could ever make it as a novelist, and one of the ways you could make money writing was as a marketing writer, a copywriter. So I went to a small ad agency in Richmond, Kennedy and Green, who are still dear friends. These two men, when I was 19, hired me for $25 a week to write ad copy. I wrote everything: radio commercials, billboards, bus cards, annual reports, travel magazine pieces, you name it, and at the end of the summer they gave me a hundred dollar bonus. This was in 1973. I went off to college, and worked for them again, this time for $50 a week and at the end of the summer I got a thousand dollar bonus. Those two men, Tom Kennedy and Gary Green, are still two of my dearest friends, and my first book is dedicated to them. Advertising writing is a great schoolhouse, because when you have to time, count, or measure your words, and see how many columns they fill, you learn concision. Craft is very important to me, and a large part of craft is concision. It’s like what Ray Charles said about the blues: “the blues is about the notes you don’t play”, and good writing is about what’s implied.

C11BB: How much historical…

(At this point, David leans down and takes the first sip of the Frappuccino that has been resting on the table in front of him. Apparently, this is David’s first Frappuccino ever.)

DR: Whoa! (begins sipping at the Frappuccino intently)

C11BB: Is that what you’ve been looking for?

DR: These have been here all this time? You could sell these on the street corner. Anyway. (Looks back at recorder)

C11BB: How much historical research did you have to do for this book? I don’t come to Assassins Gallery with the most working knowledge of history, for which I blame my public high school, and I feel like I’m learning a lot.

DR: I wrote a book called The End Of War, where Roosevelt is a character. I did a lot of my Roosevelt research for that book, and so I came to The Assassins Gallery with a lot of knowledge about FDR. One of those bits of knowledge was the conditions of his death, because The End Of War encompasses his death. And I knew, from writing that book, that one of the conditions of his death, as there always is when a president dies of natural causes, there’s always suspicion, there has to be, that he was the victim of foul play. That has to be ruled out. So, for The Assassins Gallery, I just didn’t rule that out. I took Roosevelt’s schedule, from January 1 to April 12, the day he died, and I changed nothing. Everything in this book is exactly as it happened—where he was, who he was with, what destinations he had, what he ate, who he ate with, every minute of Roosevelt’s life as detailed in this book is as it happened I took Roosevelt’s schedule and said “if I change nothing, how do you kill him? What’s the way in?” And I figured out what, I thought would work, and I invented the assassin to do it.

C11BB: You mentioned the assassin, Judith, who sets out to kill FDR. What struck me most was how ambitious and driven you made her. What sort of crafting went into the creation of the character of Judith, and why did you choose to make her female?

DR: In all of my books, up to The Assassins Gallery, tend to have ethical quandaries. They all have ethical dilemmas that have to be worked through…wouldn’t you agree?

(Asks person sitting behind him, person nods)

Someone in Starbucks agrees. Thumbs up. Anyway, the story of Assassins Gallery, as I first conceived it, didn’t have that. It was a good story, a good romp, a good alternate history adventure thriller, but it didn’t have that question.. I invented Judith, first of all, to be plausible, secondly, I put her on the fringes, she’s black, she’s white, depending upon how she conducts herself, as someone who could allow me to explore racial issues in the south, on the home front, in 1945, because the home front in the United States at this time was a fascinating place. We were sending people over seas, and said, to the black man, “Hey, look, we want you to go fight for Freedom and the American way, all of which we’re going to deny you.” I don’t like to let America, in my work, when I can, forget. So Judith is Persian because they look, to a great extent, like a Westerner. They can have blue eyes, coffee-colored skin. She was designed to help me get in my ethical issues, which I think she does in a wonderful way. Now why did I make her a woman? I like greatly switching the roles between her and [Assassins Gallery hero] Lammeck. Lammeck is as brilliant as I, with the skills I have, could make him. Judith is all visceral. She’s not stupid by any means, but she’s almost animalistic. The juxtaposition between Judith and Lammeck is kind of the same juxtaposition I explored in one of my earlier books, War of the Rats, between a Russian sniper and a German sniper, in which one was all intellect and one was all instinct. She’s designed to be his opposite. It’s also a way of saying that you could be the smartest man in the world, but if I’m 6”9 and 250 lbs, your ass is mine. Intellect is great, but if you’re facing an opponent who can just flat-out kill you, that’s daunting. Judith is designed to be the ultimate physical specimen: she’s powerful, she’s brutal, and she’s scrupulous in how she does her job, she’s not wanton at all. She’s intimidating, and a lot of her intimidation is in that she’s his opposite. And his opposite had to be a woman. Wow, that’s a good answer.

Posted in Interviews    Tagged with chapter 11 books, interview, david l robbins, richmond, assassins gallery, end of war, 2006


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